An artefact from the Kerikeri Mission Station collection that harks back to the days of unregulated healthcare has gone on display.
The spotlight recently fell on an empty glass bottle that once contained a medicinal concoction known as Weston's Wizard Oil, an intriguing elixir that Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland archaeologist Dr James Robinson said posed more questions than answers.
After careful observation, and a little research, Robinson diagnosed a severe case of quackery from a less medically enlightened time.
"The Weston Wizard Oil brand was a very big clue indeed," he said.
Known as the Wizard Oil Prince, Frank Weston toured Australia and New Zealand from the 1860s to the 1880s, peddling his bogus health tonic. The presence of the bottle in the Kerikeri Mission Station collection was not a complete surprise, given Weston's profile and his no-doubt impressive market share in quack remedies at the time, but it also raised questions.
"Did Weston come up to Kerikeri, for example, or did someone travelling from out of town bring this bottle with them? It would be really interesting to know," Robinson said.
When Weston came to town it was usually quite an occasion, he said. Described by one observer as "a comical card possessing a great amount of dry Yankee wit, humour and assurance", he was known for his ability to draw, and work, a crowd.
By "assurance" the observer probably meant confidence; by confidence he probably meant "con man".
"Weston's modus operandi was to put on a show featuring himself telling tall tales, humorous anecdotes, and of course testimonies illustrating the efficacious nature of his remedies. He also sang songs, accompanying himself on the banjo. One of these was titled, rather unsubtly, I'll Take Another Bottle Or Two.
"He drew crowds, which he then proceeded to milk in a very clever way."
Every audience member received a copy of his book, lengthily entitled Frank Weston's Australian Companion: A selection of valuable recipes for cooking &c with much information about horses, cattle, social, witty and other important subjects.
In addition to the wide range of human endeavour listed in its title, the book also included information about the remedies Weston was peddling that, in addition to his Wizard Oil, included Weston's Magic Pills and the intriguingly named Mexican Mustang Liniment.
Not that anyone needed anything more than Weston's Wizard Oil. According to the promotional material, it could be taken internally or externally as a cure-all for such ailments as rheumatism, sciatica, gout, neuralgia, cholera, spasms, headache, coughs and colds, tumours, ulcers, scrofula, diseased liver, piles, swellings and wounds, and "relaxed state of the bowels".
"Travelling 'snake oil salesmen', as they became known, were a feature of life in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, though Frank Weston was certainly one of the better known in this part of the world," Robinson said.
"The cost of a bottle of Mr Weston's elixir in New Zealand was advertised at half a crown (2/6, 25 cents), which was fairly pricey for those days. The health benefits were at best questionable."
The South Australian police caught up with Weston in 1917, however, and accused him of manufacturing his Wizard Oil in part from wood-derived methylated spirits, a breach of the Commonwealth Spirits Act 1905. The penalty upon conviction was a potentially ruinous £100 ($200), to say nothing of the complete loss of his business, a prospect guaranteed to reinvigorate the most relaxed of bowels, though Weston was later acquitted at trial and the charge was dismissed.
"Weston could possibly have added 'legal immunity' to the long list of other benefits his Wizard Oil provided, though that may have been a bit much, even for him," he added.
"The bottle reminds us of an intriguing aspect of life in the second half of 19th-century New Zealand, and gives us a picture of one of those larger-than-life characters who made his living in a way that was unorthodox to say the least."
The (mercifully empty) bottle can be seen at the Kerikeri Mission Station.